By Lincoln Feast and Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand emergency services and defence personnel evacuated hundreds of tourists and residents from a small South Island town amid more strong aftershocks on Tuesday, a day after a powerful earthquake killed two people.
The 7.8-magnitude tremor struck just after midnight on Sunday, destroying farm homesteads, sending glass and masonry toppling from buildings in the capital, Wellington, and cutting transport links across the northeast of the ruggedly beautiful South Island.
As aftershocks continued to rattle the region, emergency services cordoned off streets in Wellington and evacuated several buildings for fear one might collapse.
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester said the vacant building appeared to have suffered structural damage when the land it was on subsided in the quake. A fire service official said a major structural beam had "snapped like a bone".
The town of Kaikoura, a base for whale-watching about 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Christchurch, the South Island's main city, remained cut off by massive landslips.
Four defence force helicopters flew in to the town on Tuesday morning and two Navy vessels made for the area carrying supplies and to assist with the evacuation, Air Commander Darryn Webb, acting commander of New Zealand joint forces, told TVNZ.
"We're looking to do as many flights as we can out of Kaikoura today," he said.
About 400 of the 1,200 tourists stranded in the town were flown out on Tuesday, including 12 injured people, officials said.
One British tourist described cracks appearing on the road both in front of, and behind, the van in which she and her friends were driving to higher ground.
"The tide had gone back and the ground was cracking, so we obviously all went into a panic," Laura Taylor, a 24-year-old nurse from Sheffield, told Reuters, adding that the group then volunteered to pitch in and help the injured.
"We got to the hospital and I think we did 19 hours. It was a free-for-all, it was chaotic. We were petrified, but it was nice to know that we were able to help those injured people."
The Red Cross, which used defence force helicopters to bring in emergency generators, satellite communications and water supplies, said water in the town was running out.
Mark Solomon, a leader of South Island indigenous Maori Ngai Tahu tribe, which has tourism and fisheries businesses around Kaikoura, said a local Maori meeting spot had received 1,000 people since Monday morning. Many slept overnight in the communal hall or in vehicles outside.
The tribe had fed them with crayfish, a delicacy for which the South Island town is famous. With no power, the tanks that hold the expensive crustaceans had stopped pumping.
"It’s better to use the food than throw it in the rubbish," Solomon told Reuters by telephone.
AFTERSHOCKS, WIND AND RAIN
China chartered four helicopters to evacuate about 40 nationals from Kaikoura, mostly elderly and children, late on Monday, said Liu Lian, a Chinese consular official in Christchurch.
One Chinese citizen was treated for a minor head injury, Liu said, and 60 would be evacuated on Tuesday.
"They have been trapped in Kaikoura for a couple of days, some are maybe scared, they have some mental stress," Liu told Reuters, adding that many planned to continue travelling elsewhere in New Zealand, however.
Other tourists also planned to continue trips, and travel agencies said they saw no drop-off in bookings, easing concerns about a major hit to the industry, New Zealand's biggest export earner.
Gale-force winds and rain were hampering recovery efforts, and hundreds of aftershocks rocked the region, one of magnitude 5.4 being felt strongly in Wellington.
Finance Minister Bill English said the government was well positioned to tackle an expected repair bill running into the billions of dollars, with low debt and budget surpluses.
"We are in about as good a shape as we could be to deal with this natural disaster," English told parliament.
Civil Defence estimated the quakes caused 80,000 to 100,000 landslides. New Zealand media reported that three cows filmed stranded on a small patch of grass surrounded by landslips had been rescued by a farmer.
Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said New Zealand had accepted an offer of two U.S. Navy helicopters from the USS Sampson destroyer, besides an offer of help from the Japanese military.
By the weekend, authorities hoped to reopen an inland road to Kaikoura from the south, he said.
Workers have begun returning to Wellington's business district, which had been closed off on Monday to assess the risk to buildings.
Several blocks were damaged, including the offices of Statistics New Zealand, which halted the release of economic data and said it would take months to return to the building.
An A-League soccer match set for Saturday between the Wellington Phoenix and Australia's Melbourne Victory has been postponed because of damage to Wellington's 34,000-seat Westpac Stadium, officials said.
New Zealand lies on the seismically active "Ring of Fire", a 40,000-km arc of volcanoes and ocean trenches girdling much of the Pacific Ocean.
Christchurch is still recovering from a 6.3 magnitude quake in 2011 that killed 185 people.
(Additional reporting by Swati Pandey and Nick Mulvenney in SYDNEY; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)